THE FRENCH CON­NEC­TION

Upon their re­turn to Que­bec af­ter ar­mistice, sol­diers of the Royal 22e Reg­i­ment were fêted as he­roes — only months af­ter Que­bec City was over­run by anti-con­scrip­tion ri­ots. But as René Bruem­mer re­ports, all that recog­ni­tion came too late for some, in­cludi

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To­mor­row the world will mark the 100th an­niver­sary of Ar­mistice Day. For the Van Doos, Canada’s only French-speak­ing in­fantry bat­tal­ion in the First World War, that road to peace was about more than de­feat­ing the Ger­man army. They were fight­ing for the rep­u­ta­tion of all of French Canada. Many would die to se­cure it, René Bruem­mer re­ports.

For some­one des­tined to be­come one of Canada’s most valiant war he­roes, Jean Bril­lant’s early life and mil­i­tary ca­reer were rel­a­tively unas­sum­ing.

Like the prov­ince in which he was born, Bril­lant would come to dis­tin­guish him­self through his courage and sense of duty dur­ing the First World War. His ac­tions as a mem­ber of Canada’s sto­ried French-speak­ing Royal 22e Reg­i­ment would help to speed the ar­mistice signed 100 years ago Sun­day, bring­ing to an end a global con­fla­gra­tion that killed close to 20 mil­lion peo­ple.

Son of a rail­way worker, Bril­lant was raised in Ri­mouski, 300 kilo­me­tres north­east of Que­bec City, on the ver­dant south­ern shore of the St. Lawrence River.

A tele­graph op­er­a­tor and vol­un­teer with his lo­cal branch of the Cana­dian mili­tia, he was ea­ger to join when the First World War broke out. Sta­tioned in north­east­ern France as a lieu­tenant with Canada’s French-speak­ing 22nd In­fantry Bat­tal­ion (which soon took on the un­of­fi­cial ti­tle “the Van Doos,” af­ter the English-ac­cented ap­prox­i­ma­tion of their name), his early let­ters be­trayed tired­ness with bid­ing his time in cold, muddy trenches and do­ing lit­tle on a mil­i­tary front he de­scribed as “frus­trat­ingly quiet.”

Elo­quent and thought­ful, Bril­lant dis­played a keen eye for the so­cial dis­par­i­ties in Europe, the hor­rors of war, and a touch­ing con­cern for his par­ents.

“Rest as­sured that my af­fec­tion for you only in­creases with our sep­a­ra­tion,” he wrote to them in the fall of 1916, at the age of 26. “I im­plore you not to have any un­due wor­ries. I am in no im­me­di­ate dan­ger.”

Con­di­tions would change dras­ti­cally in 1918, when Bril­lant and the Van Doos were called to the Bat­tle of Amiens, a turn­ing point in the war that re­lied heav­ily on Cana­dian and Aus­tralian forces. Bril­lant and the other corps would rout the Ger­mans and win back nearly 20 kilo­me­tres of land over the first two days. The sol­diers’ ac­tions at Amiens, as well as other bat­tles like Vimy Ridge and Hill 70, earned Canada and the Van Doos a place of dis­tinc­tion and paved the way for Ar­mistice Day.

This year marks the 100th an­niver­sary of the morn­ing on Nov. 11, 1918, when the Al­lied forces signed an ar­mistice with Ger­many in Com­piègne, France, to end fight­ing on the Western Front. The sign­ing took place at 11 a.m. — the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — com­mem­o­rated every year on Remembrance Day.

The ar­mistice came too late for Bril­lant, killed three months ear­lier while rush­ing a Ger­man ma­chine gun out­post for the third time in two days, and for close to 61,000 Cana­di­ans killed in the war. More than 20 per cent of Canada’s 22nd In­fantry Bat­tal­ion died in bat­tle.

But Bril­lant’s val­our, along­side that of the Van Doos reg­i­ment and the Cana­dian Ex­pe­di­tionary Force as a whole, would do much to so­lid­ify the sense of iden­tity of the fledg­ling na­tion of Canada, and dis­pel the nar­ra­tive that French-Cana­di­ans were cow­ards who were shirk­ing their mil­i­tary du­ties.

“There was a re­vul­sion against Ger­man atroc­ity sto­ries in Que­bec as much as any­where else,” said Univer­sity of Ot­tawa his­tory pro­fes­sor Serge Dur­flinger, who spe­cial­izes in French Canada’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in both world wars. His French-Cana­dian grand­fa­ther served in the First World War. “The idea of oblig­a­tory ser­vice, that’s a whole other ques­tion. A lot of peo­ple misiden­tify or con­flate these things — that Que­bec was an­ti­war. Not true.”

For men like Bril­lant and for the Van Doos in­fantry bat­tal­ion, the war was not just about stanch­ing the on­slaught of the Ger­man army. They were fight­ing for the rep­u­ta­tion of all of French Canada. Many would die to se­cure it.

A cru­cial de­ter­rent to French-Cana­di­ans en­list­ing was the lack of a ded­i­cated French unit within Canada’s Ex­pe­di­tionary Force. While there were more than a dozen French-speak­ing reg­i­ments in Que­bec at the out­set of the war and many more formed dur­ing, their mem­bers would be split up once they went over­seas, placed in English-speak­ing bat­tal­ions dec­i­mated by ca­su­al­ties. French-Cana­di­ans would have trou­ble fol­low­ing or­ders, face lim­ited op­por­tu­ni­ties for ad­vance­ment, and in the case of death, not be cared for by a Ro­man Catholic chap­lain.

“It was bad enough get­ting killed be­cause you can’t un­der­stand or­ders, but you sure didn’t want to die and have the last rites read by a Protes­tant min­is­ter,” said one mu­seum tour op­er­a­tor, quoted in Le­gion mag­a­zine.

The Cana­dian Min­is­ter of Mili­tia and De­fence, Sam Hughes, a staunch Protes­tant, dis­trusted French-Cana­di­ans and re­sisted cre­at­ing a French unit. It was only un­der po­lit­i­cal pressure di­rected at Prime Min­is­ter Robert Bor­den, and a $50,000 do­na­tion ($1.2 mil­lion in to­day’s dol­lars) from a pri­vate French-Cana­dian doc­tor, that the Royal 22e Reg­i­ment was formed in Oc­to­ber 2014.

Other fac­tors dis­suaded French-Cana­di­ans from en­list­ing. Few held an affin­ity for the Bri­tish Empire, and ties with mother coun­try France had been all but sev­ered for decades. Re­li­gious ed­u­ca­tion taught them France had aban­doned French-Cana­di­ans af­ter 1760, and was now a sec­u­lar and anti-cler­i­cal repub­lic.

In the early 1900s, Que­bec was still a ru­ral pop­u­la­tion, where able-bod­ied fa­thers and older sons were needed on the farms to feed their large fam­i­lies. Farm­ers and ru­ral pop­u­la­tions across Canada were against manda­tory en­list­ment. Mar­ried men were sta­tis­ti­cally the least likely to vol­un­teer, and Que­bec had the largest per­cent­age of mar­ried men in all of Canada. Those most likely to vol­un­teer were re­cent im­mi­grants from Bri­tain — two-thirds of Cana­di­ans who signed up for the first con­tin­gent were ci­ti­zens who had been born in the Bri­tish Isles.

The main source of French-Cana­di­ans’ an­tipa­thy was their sense that the fed­eral govern­ment was aban­don­ingthem.In1912,On­tario adopted Reg­u­la­tion 17, elim­i­nat­ing French school­ing beyond Grade 2 for Franco-On­tar­i­ans. For many French Cana­di­ans who re­garded Con­fed­er­a­tion as a pact be­tween the coun­try’s two found­ing lan­guage groups, the law was a be­trayal, and a sign the fed­eral in­ten­tion was to as­sim­i­late the French-speak­ing pop­u­la­tion as op­posed to pro­tect­ing them.

When Prime Min­is­ter Bor­den re­al­ized vol­un­teer re­cruits would not be enough to ful­fil his prom­ise to fur­nish a steady sup­ply of troops, he en­acted con­scrip­tion in Au­gust 1917, af­ter ear­lier promis­ing he never would. All male sub­jects be­tween 18 and 45 were sub­ject to mil­i­tary ser­vice. Ex­emp­tions ini­tially granted for farm­ers were later re­voked.

It was seen by many in English Canada as a way to get Que­bec “shirk­ers” en­listed, even though sta­tis­ti­cally, “if Bri­tish im­mi­grants are not counted, the re­spec­tive con­tri­bu­tions of French- and English-Cana­di­ans were more pro­por­tional than raw data would sug­gest,” his­to­rian Dur­flinger wrote. “Con­scrip­tion was con­sid­ered the re­sult of the English-lan­guage ma­jor­ity im­pos­ing its views over a French-lan­guage mi­nor­ity on an is­sue of life and death. … Cana­dian na­tional unity had never seemed so frag­ile.”

Protesters took to the streets of Mon­treal. An­gry crowds smashed the win­dows of pro-con­scrip­tion news­pa­per the Gazette. The sum­mer home of the pub­lisher of the Mon­treal Daily Star was dy­na­mited. (He was not harmed.) In Que­bec City, fed­eral troops fired on a threat­en­ing anti-con­scrip­tion crowd on April 1, 1918, killing four.

For many fran­co­phones, the Easter Ri­ots and con­scrip­tion cri­sis would be­come the defin­ing event of the First World War, when the seeds of Que­bec iden­tity and na­tion­al­ism were sowed, nurtured by the pride of hav­ing re­sisted what they saw as an un­just law.

De­spite this re­sis­tance, Dur­flinger notes, sev­eral bat­tal­ions were formed in Que­bec to fight over­seas.

“Many French-Cana­di­ans wanted to en­list, but didn’t have the lan­guage skills, or felt they would be at a dis­ad­van­tage,” he said. “There was pop­u­lar sup­port to en­list, if you could do it un­der a French-speak­ing of­fi­cer, in a French bat­tal­ion.”

There was pop­u­lar sup­port to en­list, if you could do it un­der a French­s­peak­ing of­fi­cer, in a French bat­tal­ion.

MATT CARDY/GETTY IM­AGES

A me­mo­rial in High Lit­tle­ton, United King­dom, com­mem­o­rates the centenary of the First World War. The ar­mistice was signed at Com­piègne, France, on Nov. 11, 1918, at 11 a.m. — the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

MUSéE ROYAL 22E RéG­I­MENT

The Royal 22e Reg­i­ment at Courcelette, France, on Sept. 15, 1916. “This is our first sig­nif­i­cant at­tack,” the reg­i­ment’s Lt.-Col. Thomas-Louis Trem­blay wrote in his di­ary. “It must be a great suc­cess for the hon­our of all French-Cana­di­ans we rep­re­sent in France.

DND/LI­BRaRY AND AR­CHIVES CANADA

The 22nd bat­tal­ion at work drain­ing trenches in July 1916. The Van Doos would serve with dis­tinc­tion at the bat­tles of Amiens, Vimy Ridge, Hill 70 and Pass­chen­daele.

DND/LI­BRaRY AND AR­CHIVES CANADA

The Van Doos en­camp­ment at the Bat­tle of Amiens, a turn­ing point in the war.

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